In front of a deep blue background, a vivacious redhead appears, full of anguish and yearning as she sings about the rock star she idolizes being drafted into the army. This is the hypnotic beginning to 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie, and for many, it was the moment Ann-Margret became a bona fide star. A triple threat who could dance, sing, and act with both sincerity and a winking playfulness, Ann-Margret became an icon of ’60s cinema, and nothing better exemplifies why than the back-to-back musicals she made with director George Sidney: Bye Bye Birdie and 1964’s Viva Las Vegas.
Originally a Broadway show starring Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera, the film version of Birdie famously underwent a litany of changes thanks to Sidney’s unrequited infatuation with Ann-Margret. The film became a showcase for the newcomer’s talents, much to the annoyance of Van Dyke, who reprised his Tony-winning role, and Janet Leigh, who replaced Rivera. Van Dyke and Leigh still shine, but it is clear that although Van Dyke was the one making his cinematic debut here, it was Ann-Margret who Sidney was posing for stardom.
As Kim McAfee, the impressionable 16-year-old whose life is thrown into chaos when she is chosen to be part of a publicity stunt for teen idol Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), Ann-Margret splendidly portrays a girl on the cusp of womanhood and all of the confusion, frustration, and excitement that experience entails. Her oscillation between trembling innocence and womanly bravado here became crucial to her star persona in the ’60s, her characters’ confident and exuberant sexuality softened by her “good girl” ideals.
After Bye Bye Birdie proved what an unforgettable screen presence she could be, audiences clamored for Ann-Margret to be paired with the one man who could match her unique blend of sensuality and sweetness: Elvis Presley. Ironically enough, Conrad Birdie was an obvious satire of Elvis, who had actually wanted to play the role in the film adaptation until his manager, Col. Tom Parker, put a stop to it. Ann-Margret and Elvis’s one and only collaboration therefore became Viva Las Vegas. Although not as strong as Birdie, both films hum with vibrancy and joy.
Part of that comes from Ann-Margret herself, specifically her dancing. Unbridled and unafraid of appearing ridiculous, she shimmies, leaps, whips her hair around, and makes the goofiest faces while somehow still looking like a goddess. Dancing was an irrepressible release for the actress and she found that Elvis felt the same way: “Music ignited a fiery pent-up passion inside Elvis and inside me. It was an odd, embarrassing, funny, inspiring, and wonderful sensation. We looked at each other move and saw virtual mirror images. When Elvis thrust his pelvis, mine slammed forward too. When his shoulder dropped, I was down there with him. When he whirled, I was already on my heel. ‘It’s uncanny,’ I said. He grinned. Whatever it was, Elvis liked it and so did I.”
Onscreen, the sparks between the two of them are so palpable that it almost goes without saying that they had an affair, which later became a close friendship that lasted until Elvis’s death. Watching Ann-Margret and Elvis is, in a word, electrifying. There is an unmistakable lust between them that almost makes you feel like you need to turn your head away to give them privacy, such as when they dance in a nightclub with agonizingly slow moves, their lips just inches apart. The promiscuity of the moment is only intensified when Elvis takes up a guitar to perform “What I’d Say” as Ann-Margret dances with him. George Sidney soon forgoes all subtlety and quickly cuts back and forth between close-ups of Ann-Margret and Elvis’s seductive expressions as they look at each other and lead a section of the song that has the men in the club singing “ahhh” and the women responding with “ohhh.” The editing and the music build until the orgiastic moment explodes into the final reprise of the chorus.
As one can tell from seeing either Bye Bye Birdie or Viva Las Vegas, Sidney knew how to direct a musical. His numbers are often compelling and visceral, whether he was helming an Esther Williams extravaganza like Bathing Beauty or a Broadway import like Kiss Me, Kate. In addition to Ann-Margret’s magnetism and the irresistible soundtrack, Sidney’s direction is what makes Viva Las Vegas one of Elvis’s finest films. Each number enraptures us, providing a temporary amnesia of the flimsy and somewhat nonsensical narrative. Even the simplest set-ups are sensational, such as Elvis crooning “Today, Tomorrow, and Forever” to Ann-Margret in the luscious pink glow of a sunset or their adorable duet of “The Lady Loves Me” as he follows her around a pool, a routine I have to admit I randomly think about often.
To watch Bye Bye Birdie is to witness a star being born. To watch Viva Las Vegas, meanwhile, is to witness two people who are intoxicated with each other. Both films burst with Ann-Margret’s wholesome carnality, staggering charisma, and terrific talent, qualities that made her into the fascinating star she still is today. An Ann-Margret performance is an experience, and her musicals with George Sidney are two of the most fun experiences a movie lover could have.
Bye Bye Birdie was shown at the IU Cinema in 2016 as part of the Sunday Matinee Classics series, while Viva Las Vegas was screened in 2017 for the series Elvis in Hollywood: Shaking Up the Silver Screen.
For another piece about Elvis’s film work, check out Landon Palmer’s 2017 guest post “Beyond the Zombie Saga: Elvis Presley in 1960s Hollywood.”
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.